Bill English ruined my first front page as editor of the New Zealand Herald

It was on the October night in 2001 when George W Bush started the war on terror against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. The prepared front page was a spectacular full page photo of an American missile leaving a warship in the Gulf at night, marking the beginning of conflicts that have lasted until today.

Along comes Bill. That very evening, news of his coup to remove Jenny Shipley as leader of the National Party started breaking from the press gallery in Wellington. It was one of the old-fashioned stealth coups, the surprise nature of the knifing adding to the political drama of any leadership spill.

Between editions of the paper being sent to the printer, we felt compelled to recognise this late-breaking important New Zealand news story on our front page. We cut the poster-style photograph of the missile and its launch of a historic war to half its size, making the lead story the news of English, at 39, seizing his party’s leadership.

The result – for that day’s Herald and for the National Party – was pretty average. 

English’s first stint as leader ended badly after delivering National in 2002 its lowest percentage of the vote – 20.9 – in any election in its history. When he was inevitably rolled by Don Brash the following year English left the leadership in circumstances of memorable sadness, heckled off Parliament grounds by random Wellingtonians as he walked away that evening, alone, to his home.

As we all know, he got back up again; staying in Parliament, helping John Key retake the government benches in 2008 and being the power behind the throne for eight years before ascending again to the National Party leadership and, this time, the Prime Ministership in 2016. 

English acquitted himself in the top job well enough to have a chance after last year’s election of negotiating with New Zealand First and taking National into a historic fourth consecutive term  running the country. Ultimately, the man from Dipton dipped out. Back it was to Opposition and last month on his own terms to stepping down and this time leaving Parliament after 28 years.

He used his valedictory speech to the House yesterday to explain what drove him to the top-bottom-top-and-exit door of New Zealand politics, to turn his big brain to some big issues that neither he nor other governments in his time had managed to solve, and to reminisce on a political life lived with both hard headedness and compassion.

In a 45-minute speech that, by his count was his 1001st address to Parliament, English said his greatest feeling was one of gratitude. “For the moments of connection and witness to the lives of others, which I believe is the deepest privilege of public life: to see the joy of their achievement, to see the courage in their suffering and to be grateful for the strength and wisdom given to me by so many.”

He revealed a formative element of that wisdom came, when as a Treasury official in the 1980s he saw the severe impact of Roger Douglas’ economic revolution on his farming community down south. “The lesson I learned was that New Zealand should never get into that situiation where the only choice, and it was the only choice, was massive disruption and damaging restructuring. I’m pleased that years later, when I had the opportunity as a policy maker, we acted in a way that meant we could avoid that kind of disruption.”

It was a speech that rambled as such valedictories do, at times humorous, functional in thanking those around him, fascinating when highlighting political influences that shaped the departee, and energised when seeking to leave a message for this Government, his own party and those to follow.

Above all it was personal. Eye-brimming, water gulping emotion welled up several times as English spoke of his family and friends. 

He recalled his training in 2002 for the Fight to Life charity boxing event to raise awareness of youth suicide. At the time he asked his, older, trainer in Titahi Bay why he was so keen to get into the ring and spar with him. “He said: ‘Mate, it’s cos you’re a Tory and I want to hit you.”

English said that fight training shaped him politically, in a way. “Because the composure that I learned under the tutelage of this hard-core Labour supporter about how to stay composed when you are taking the punches made all the difference to the capacity to lead my party through a very difficult period. [The 20.9 percent period]. That’s just one of many examples of the way in which, I think, those of us in public life can be inspired unexpectedly.”

It has always been clear there is depth to English. He was attracted to some of the more complex issues facing government and the country. He highlighted two in his farewell – Treaty settlements and his signature policy reform, Social Investment.

Working with the Iwi Leaders Forum on advancing Treaty of Waitangi partnership and settlements was an area singled out in the speech in a way that hints at a chapter some time in a future political memoir.

“It was intense and we developed, in what I think typifies New Zealand’s flexible constitutional development, a practical and pragmatic solution to the idea of Treaty partnership, with out the courts an without too many academics.

“It was the most efficient, focused and accountable process I’ve been part of in government in the whole 27 years, and it gives me great optimism, actually, for New Zealand.”

Predicting the Royal Commission into child abuse in state care will “tell us what we already know”, English summed it up: “Government work looks after the weakest worst – it does the worst job for the weakest.”

“I’ve never understood the argument that the structure of delivering a service matters more than the people to whom you deliver it. The core of my belief, and it comes from Catholic theology and to some extent National Party principles – is the utter integrity of the individual person, their importance and our obligation to them to ensure that they can realise their aspirations and their full humanity. Much of what government does, does not do that.

“That’s a shame, because I’ve never met a person, in 27 years, who had no hope. Never. Not one, including the worst of our offenders.”

Here was a moment for legacy. “Social investment will roll on because ideas are powerful. Knowledge is powerful – more powerful than governments and now people know it can be different.”

His “only” regret is losing government last year. “We were ready to do some good stuff if we’d been re-elected.”

English’s sign-off quoting James K Baxter’s “New Zealand” was apposite, very Kiwi, unconventional for a finance guy, deep, humble and incrementalist. 

“These unshaped islands, on the sawyer’s bench,

Wait for the chisel of the mind”

To which he added: “Ten thousand days since I was elected and I’m satisfied that every day, I took my turn at the chisel.”

No more speeches. No more highs, lows, jokes and tears. No more front page news.

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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